A Healthy Approach to CEO Illness

Fortunately there does appear to be a trend toward greater transparency and discussing illness openly. This shift has come to a great extent from the start-up world. In particular, Brad Feld of Foundry Group has inspired many with his forthright account of his repeated battles with depression, an illness he believes, with good evidence, is prevalent in entrepreneurs.

Jobs’ approach to his illness contrasts sharply with that of Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO of KPMG who, together with his wife, wrote a remarkable book, Chasing Daylight, a forthright account of their last months together following O’Kelly’s diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor. O’Kelly was transparent with his board, notifying them immediately of his intention to step down. This was the prelude to his approach of facing death directly and planning, as a CEO might, for the weeks and months he had remaining, determined to make the most of the daylight left.

“Fortunately there does appear to be a trend toward greater transparency and discussing illness openly.”

In the spring of 2015, Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, shortly after being named Power-Gen Woman of the Year, spoke openly to her family and colleagues, including 600 employees, about her decision to undergo a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. The procedure ultimately revealed she was cancer positive in both breasts. As Powell tells it, sharing her story had a profound positive effect. Not only did she receive an outpouring of support, but she began a public health conversation that enabled many to speak up about their own private battles with illness and encouraged people to be proactive about seeking medical attention.

Powell  attributes much of her ability to speak frankly about her illness to a board that mirrors her strong values of openness, authenticity and fidelity. It is the emotional resonance, she emphasizes, between the CEO and board that affirms the value of transparency and vulnerability that is the key to meaningful exchange and effective leadership of a crisis induced by illness in the leader.

No matter what plan is adopted by the board to deal with CEO illness, the plan must be informed by an acknowledgment of the profound emotional impact the illness of the CEO will have on the company. While concepts like emotional intelligence have become commonplace in business school and in leadership training programs, all too often the pressure remains to keep emotional life out of the boardroom. This is often to the company’s detriment.

A reluctance or inability to deal with such inevitable emotional reactions cannot but have a profound effect on leadership, decision making and business outcomes.

“When illness enters the picture, the dynamics between the CEO and the board are affected in often unpredictable and surprising ways.”

The best laid succession plans are rarely followed as envisioned under the best of circumstances. When illness enters the picture, the dynamics between the CEO and the board are affected in often unpredictable and surprising ways.

How to allow for the mourning of the CEO is one concern creating the most effective succession process, another. In Jobs’ case, his illness  and his idiosyncratic means of coping with it, fortunately did not prevent a successful succession outcome, based on the quality of the successor and the minimal disruption to the business around the transition period. This argues for the usefulness of having the CEO involved in the successor process to whatever extent possible.

An advisor may play a particularly useful role in succession conversations. An advisor may prevent or mitigate the effects of a board’s unconscious group reaction that leads them to make poor choices in CEO succession. Dysfunctional dynamics such as “groupthink” in a board often operate outside the awareness of individual board members and may result in the wrong successor being chosen.

When the CEO is ill, the board may cede all control of choosing the successor to the CEO, or alternately, keep the CEO out of the decision making process entirely. Either reaction—which may be due to  the board’s unresolved, anticipatory feelings regarding loss of the leader—has a negative effect on the succession process. and may lead to poor decisions. When adequate advance preparation is done,and the above mentioned dynamics considered, the best decisions can be made for the health and success of the company.

STEVEN S. ROLFE M.D., is a principal of Merion Advisory Group and Boswell Group. He is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs, boards and family enterprises on psychological aspects of management and leadership. LAURIE STEVENS, M.D. is a principal in the Boswell Group who advises CEOs, boards and senior leaders on interpersonal, leadership and organizational issues, and is also a practicing psychiatrist in New York City.